Engagement without Recognition

Isolation or interaction? In The Politics of International Interaction with De Facto States the authors explore the conundrum for politicians and policy makers: how to deal with de facto states in the international arena?

Oil drums and barbed wire in Nicosia mark the division of the island of Cyprus in the Republic of Cyprus (recognized) and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (unrecognized).

Jorie Horsthuis

In international politics, it is a huge dilemma: how to deal with de facto states? On the one hand, recognized states and international organizations feel a deep reluctance to interact with breakaway regions for fear of legitimising their status. On the other hand, isolating such territories rarely leads to their demise and might even hinder efforts to reach a settlement.

It is important to find some sort of balance, write the editors of The Politics of International Interaction with De Facto States (Routledge, 2019). This academic volume is focused around the concept of ‘engagement without recognition’, meaning interacting with secessionist de facto states while maintaining the position that they are not regarded as independent sovereign actors in the international system. As this policy is not without complications and controversy, the book analyses a broad range of relevant and urgent issues that are connected to this topic.

The editors are both seniors in the field. As a professor of International Relations at the University of Tartu (Estonia), Eiki Berg recently launched the De Facto States Research Unit, which provides expertise about places that, legally speaking, ‘do not exist’. James Ker-Lindsay is a Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science (UK) and started a popular YouTube-channel about international relations, independence and secession. His insightful video clips about topics like the reasons why Somaliland or Western Sahara are not internationally recognized have reached thousands of viewers all over the world.

The Politics of International Interaction with De Facto States is obviously much more academic. It explores not only the concept of ‘engagement without recognition’ but also of ‘statehood’, ‘de facto authorities’ and ‘occupation’ and shows that all these concepts are contested. Additionally, the volume sheds light on a broad range of case studies about places like Kosovo, Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus. It brings together research about settlement processes, stigmatization of de facto states and the role of international organizations like the United Nations and the European Union. The contributions of outstanding scholars like Nina Caspersen, Bruno Coppetiers and George Kyris are insightful and valuable. Their articles were originally published as a special issue of the academic journal Ethnopolitics.

One conclusion that stands out, even though it might sound rather obvious: not all de facto states are treated equally. Each has to find its own position on the world stage, and some are struggling more than others. The role of both parent and patron states should not be underestimated in this context. Another conclusion after reading this book: the topic has for quite some time been considered in the margins of the study of international relations, but it has become more and more urgent during past three decades. Not only is there a growing number of breakaway regions, they also increasingly operate on the forefront of international politics. Therefore, studies like these are necessary to understand recent developments, for example in the Donbas (Eastern Ukraine) and inspire policy makers.

The Politics of International Interaction with De Facto States: Conceptualizing Engagement without Recognition. Edited by Eiki Berg and James Ker-Lindsay, with contributions of Bruno Coppetiers, Nina Caspersen, Kristel Vits, Vera Axyonova, Andrea Gawrich and George Kyris. Published by Routledge, 2019.